Prayer and Action – Nehemiah 1 and 2

God is Sovereign. We have been thinking about the story of the Jews who were ordered taken into exile in Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar at the beginning of the sixth century BC. Jerusalem and the great Temple were destroyed and a small remnant were taken into captivity. God is Sovereign and He used a King and a nation who were not his followers to bring His judgment even on His own chosen people Israel. We saw how God kept hope alive amongst that remnant and then last week we saw how after 70 years of exile the Sovereign God moved another King who did not believe in Him or even acknowledge him – Cyrus – to bring his chosen people back to Jerusalem again.

God is Sovereign. He is in control of every aspect of His creation, all the seasons and earthquakes and floods. God is Sovereign over nations and Kings – they are all as grasshoppers to him. God is Sovereign over each and every one of our lives, when we will be born and when and how we will die, our jobs, our relationships, every tiny detail is in God’s hands. Time and again the Bible tells us, God is supreme Ruler of all things. God is in control. God is the boss. God is Sovereign!

It is a sad thing that over the centuries some Christians have misunderstood this wonderful truth of the Sovereignty of God. Among them were even some of our Baptist ancestors. Some Christians distorted the doctrine of God’s Sovereignty as expounded by among others the great 16th Century French Reformation theologian and took it too far. They became what have been described as hyper-Calvinists. They said that since God was in control of everything, Christians don’t have to do anything. If God has decided somebody is going to be saved, Christians don’t need to do anything about that – God will save the person with or without our help. God would save the person without anybody preaching the gospel to them. In fact some hypercalvinists went so far as to say that it would be wrong for Christians to preach the gospel to anybody because that would get in the way of God saving them by His own divine power. They argued that God would sort out all the problems of injustice in the world by Himself, so Christians did not need to do anything to help people who were poor or exploited or oppressed. And they argued that there was no point in praying in petition or intercession. Since the Sovereign God had already decided what He would do, there was no point in asking God to do something different. So because of their believe in the supremacy of God, hypercalvinists including some of our Baptist predecessors did nothing themselves. They left everything to God. They didn’t preach the gospel. They didn’t care for the poor or work for justice. They didn’t even pray about such things – they thought they didn’t need to.

God IS Sovereign. God is indeed ruler of all things. God is in control. Jesus Christ IS Lord! But that absolutely does not mean that Christians should just sit around doing nothing. Because time and again the Bible teaches us that it is the duty of all believers to preach the gospel and witness for Christ. It is the duty of all Christians to care for the poor and downtrodden and to work for justice for all. And it is the privilege and the duty of all believers to pray that God’s kingdom come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

And we find these truths clearly demonstrated in the life of Nehemiah, one of the Jews who God sent back to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple and the city. They put their trust in the Sovereign God who moved King Cyrus to let them go back to Jerusalem. But Nehemiah knew very well that as well as God moving on their behalf, the exiles would have things to do themselves if the city was to be rebuilt. Without taking away one bit from the Sovereignty of God, men and women would have to pray and men and women would have to act! Prayer and actions – the human side of God’s will being done.

And here in the life of Nehemiah we find prayer and action working together. To begin with – prayer. Any action we ever take in obedience to God should spring from prayer. Any course of action we take in God’s name should be immersed in prayer! We can learn a great deal from Nehemiah’s prayer here in chapter 1.

Appeal to God’s character

5 Then I said:
“O LORD, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands, 6 let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel.

Prayer reminds us of who God is – acknowledges Him in every part of our lives and His world.

Honest prayer acknowledging sin

6 I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you. 7 We have acted very wickedly towards you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.

Prayer reminds us that God doesn’t owe us anything. Before him, we are nothing but miserable sinners who deserve His Judgment.

Claiming God’s promises

8 “Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, 9 but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’

Prayer is about claiming God’s promises. God is Sovereign. He has revealed what He is planning to do. But that does not mean he will get on and do it whatever we do or do not do on our part. God invites believers in every age to be his co-workers. And the starting point in our co-operating with God is praying for what he is intending to accomplish. If God has made specific promises, our prayers should be claiming his promises. If we don’t know what God’s plans are in a situation, we pray asking Him to reveal His perfect will so that we can pray for that.

Nehemiah knew the terms on which God had taken the Jews into exile. He knew the promises. When they had learned their lesson in captivity and his rebellious people returned to him, God had promised in Deuteronomy that they would then return to Jerusalem. So Nehemiah was simply claiming God’s promises, appealing to God’s Sovereign power and His character of steadfast love.

10 “They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand.

Nehemiah was reminding God of his plan of salvation and all the promises He had made concerning His chosen people the nation of Israel.

And in our prayers we have so many promises God has made still to claim.

Specific prayer

Nehemiah knew God had put him in a strategic position. He was cupbearer to the great King Artaxerxes! Nehemiah knew this position of influence could be used by God to bless the Israelites. So he prayed very specifically for an opportunity for God to use him.

11 O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favour in the presence of this man

OUR prayers need to be SPECIFIC. Not vague and woolly “God bless so-and-so” but specific! With this person, in this situation give me an opportunity to serve you and witness for you. Give me the grace to help this person. Because prayer should lead on to actions! Very often God wants to use US his chosen people to answer our own prayers!

I was cupbearer to the King
2 In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was brought for him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. I had not been sad in his presence before; 2 so the king asked me, “Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart.”
I was very much afraid, 3 but I said to the king, “May the king live for ever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my fathers are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?”
4 The king said to me, “What is it you want?”
Then I prayed to the God of heaven, 5 and I answered the king,
“If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favour in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my fathers are buried so that I can rebuild it.”

Here we see prayer and action hand in hand. We see a man whose prayer life is not just confined to times of prayer, to worship services and prayer meetings and set prayers. Here we see Nehemiah who is in close touch with God every moment and prays in the midst of life.

4 The king said to me, “What is it you want?”
Then I prayed to the God of heaven, 5 and I answered the king,

We need that kind of prayer life. As I’ve spoken about on many occasions, Practising the Presence of God, an awareness of God’s presence in every situation so that we can pray to God and answer those around us in a single breath. Some people call these kinds of prayers “arrow prayers”. A prayer we can send up to God of heaven in the midst of any situation asking for his strength or his wisdom or his guidance or his grace. A prayer for the right words to say and the courage to say them. An arrow prayer. That kind of prayer can lead to life-changing consequences!


“If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favour in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my fathers are buried so that I can rebuild it.”

God’s Sovereignty doesn’t mean we just sit around and wait for God to save the world. Faith in God means we are prepared to go out on a limb and take risks for God and take the opportunities he gives us to serve Him.

6 Then the king, with the queen sitting beside him, asked me, “How long will your journey take, and when will you get back?” It pleased the king to send me; so I set a time.

Nehemiah’s prayers were answered – God opened the door for him to God to Jerusalem. But Nehemiah wasn’t satisfied with just that. So he goes on to ask for more – to ask not for himself but for all the returning exiles and for the whole project of rebuilding Jerusalem.

7 I also said to him, “If it pleases the king, may I have letters to the governors of Trans-Euphrates, so that they will provide me safe-conduct until I arrive in Judah? 8 And may I have a letter to Asaph, keeper of the king’s forest, so he will give me timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel by the temple and for the city wall and for the residence I will occupy?” And because the gracious hand of my God was upon me, the king granted my requests. 9 So I went to the governors of Trans-Euphrates and gave them the king’s letters. The king had also sent army officers and cavalry with me.

Nehemiah had Faith in the Gracious hand of God.

He knew God was on his side. He knew God wanted to use him to do great things. So he prayed. And he prayed. And he prayed. And then he acted! He didn’t just ask for a little – he asked for a lot! Bold requests to God and bold requests to King Artaxerxes. And all those bold requests were answered.

God has put us in influential positions where he wants to use us. Unique positions with family and friends and neighbours and work colleagues where only we are able to show God’s love to them. Only we are able to tell them about Jesus. God is Sovereign – He can save anybody He chooses. But God chooses to do His work through us, his children. God wants to use OUR prayers and OUR actions to change lives and communities.

So we need to learn to pray and pray about things, like Nehemiah. We need to learn to pray through them – to soak situations in prayer. To discern God’s will and claim God’s promises. AND THEN we need to learn to walk closely with God, like Nehemiah did, so that we can send up “arrow prayers” any time we need to. Then we will naturally be able to be bold and step out in faith and accomplish great things for God. God needs us to pray – and to act!

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